Tom Croft's portrait of nurse Harriet who is based at the MRI in Manchester

When the UK went into lock-down, Oxford portrait painter Tom Croft felt impotent in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. He watched helplessly at the intrepid bravery of front line NHS workers going in to fight the virus on a daily basis and wondered how he could help.

Last Saturday two weeks ago he woke up with the answer. He could at least capture them and their continuing heroism by offering to paint a front line NHS worker’s portrait for free.

“One nurse emailed to say she’d returned from a brutal hospital shift and cried when she got home, but having her portrait painted had made her smile.”

He made his offer on Instagram and was immediately contacted by a nurse at the Manchester Royal Infirmary who had had Covid-19 and was about to return to the frontline again. She jumped at the chance of Tom to painting her portrait and he began working on the project.

Tom also contacted every painter he knew with his new idea, suggesting that they might do the same. Expecting a few offers in return, Tom was then absolutely inundated with artists delighted to join the new #portraitsfornhsheroes scheme, who had all been feeling equally impotent at home.

Barry Miller’s #portraitsfornhsheroes series

At first Tom matched the hundreds of artists and subjects himself, but when numbers reached the thousands, he set up the hash tag #portraitsfornhsheroes so that artists and frontline workers can match themselves.

What Tom hadn’t countered on was the concept spreading abroad, and he is being contacted continually by international artists as far away as Malaysia, America, Spain, Italy, Holland and Belgium, all now introducing the same concept in their own countries.

Tom hopes that when Covid-19 is over, the resulting portraits can be exhibited countrywide as a catalogue, celebration and remembrance of all that has gone on doing this global pandemic.

Not only that, but some leading portrait artists have contacted him, all lending their services for free including Alastair Adams, President of the Royal Society Of Portrait Painters, and with a BBC news slot already under his belt and suggestions of a US chat show appearance being bandied around, the project shows no sign of abating.

Not that Tom wants any of the glory, squirming when I ask if he’s proud of what he’s achieved. “I’m just proud of the artistic community for coming together in this way to do something positive, and of the NHS workers they are depicting.

“The fact that the project has grown on such a mammoth scale has been overwhelming, and it’s still growing which is extraordinary and incredibly moving. It’s so wonderful to find a glimmer of positivity amongst this pandemic.

“One nurse emailed us to say she had returned from a brutal hospital shift and had cried when she got home, but being matched with a painter and having her portrait painted had made her smile.”

So why has it taken off so quickly? “Because by painting their portraits, these frontline staff are telling their stories and describing themselves, their lives and what they have been through in a form that can survive hundreds of years.

Tom Croft self portrait

“I just cannot imagine what it’s like having to wake up every morning, don your PPE and go back into the NHS or frontline, we are indebted to them, so it’s amazing to be able to commemorate that, and to give something back has been comforting.

“So while artists are having to use photographs rather than painting a subject live, the results have been really heat-warming,” The Wolvercote artists adds.

Other Artweeks artists taking part include Bicester’s Barry Miller who is producing a series of smaller oils of health-care workers capturing the dynamism and strength of the people wearing the uniform of the front line.

Barry Miller’s #porttraitsfornhsheroes painting



Mosaicist Becky Paton is also currently working on a #portraitfornhsheroes in her Wheatley studio.

“This is my meagre offering of thanks to all of the people playing a part fighting the pandemic,” she explains. “Tom matched me with the most wonderful, vibrant Spanish nurse Rocio, 33, who normally works in cardiac critical care at the JR in a ward that has now been converted in to a COVID-19 ward which doubled its normal capacity.

“She’s obviously super busy at the moment so I haven’t met her. However, although I have been working from photographs, we have also chatted and texted so that I can really show her character in the mosaic. She’s full of life and loves the simple pleasures in life: a coffee with friends, walking in Shotover, travelling, dancing and singing. It’s a joyful portrait.”

A work in progress – Becky Paton’s #portraitfornhsheroes

Whilst most of the artists are recording the NHS heroes in their scrubs and masks, Becky was keen to look to the future and Rocio’s flowing locks and red-lipped smile are set in a rim of azure blues, stylised purple flowers and green leaves. 

“It’s called “A Brighter New Tomorrow’” she says, “as I wanted to mark the present but also look to the future.”

The finished portrait will be unveiled at a live-streamed at 3pm on Saturday May 2 as part of Oxfordshire Artweeks which kicks off this weekend. https://www.artweeks.org/galleries/2020/becky-paton 

Artists Tom, Barry and Becky, along with hundreds of others across the county, take part in the Oxfordshire Artweeks festival annually and it is important financially to the livelihoods of many. Please visit www.artweeks.org to see more on Tom, Barry, Becky and take join in the virtual festival this May (2nd-25th).

Go to http://www.thomascroft.co.uk/portraits-for-nhs-heroes/ for more details or the hashtag https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/portraitsfornhsheroes/ on Instagram for the results.

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